Work camp for Site C dam project near Fort St. John houses up to 2,000 workers, and features a movie theatre, licensed lounge, hairdresser, running track and basketball court. (B.C. Hydro)

B.C.’s new union rules could create ‘battle zone’ in big construction

Raids expected as independent unions begin work on pipelines, LNG

B.C.’s proposed overhaul of labour code provisions for union takeover raids sets up an annual summer “battle zone” for major construction projects, the head of Canada’s independent contractor group says.

The B.C. NDP government has already restricted major public works projects to 19 mostly U.S.-based unions through the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council, prompting a court challenge by independent contractors and their affiliated trade unions, who are represented by Abbotsford-based Canada Works.

Amendments to the Labour Relations Code now before the B.C. legislature would allow union membership raids only once every three years to provide stability. But the construction industry is excluded from this recommendation by the government’s expert panel, and the legislation provides for raid periods in July and August of every year.

Paul de Jong, president of the Edmonton-based Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, says the annual raid periods risk creating “chaos” as contractors in his group and affiliated unions get set for major projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Coastal GasLink pipeline to a new liquefied natural gas export facility at Kitimat.

“What that does is make it into almost a sort of battle zone,” de Jong said in an interview. “The companies are going to have to expend incredible resources to fight off these raids.”

The 19 building trades unions all have no-raid agreements with each other, leaving the Canada Works-affiliated unions as the only possible targets in construction.

De Jong said B.C. is going against the trend in Alberta and other provinces to regulate three years or more between raids.

“We don’t object to the right of employees to choose or switch unions,” de Jong said. “That’s part of their Charter rights. What we don’t like is the insult that it provides to workers who are trying to form a sophisticated and productive labour-management relationship with their employer, which is what we promote. So having an open period every year is excessive.”

Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) and Canada West Union are among PCAC’s affiliated unions in construction, most of which is now non-union in B.C. except for the largest projects.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said the cabinet opted to depart from his expert panel’s recommendations in only two areas, one of which is the annual summer raid period in construction.

(The current legislation also extends union successorship rights into private food services as well as health care food service and other non-clinical health care services, going against the panel’s findings after a province-wide tour last year.)

“Most [construction industry] projects are two- to three-year length, so if you say three-year or longer contract, they can only raid in the third year or every year thereafter,” Bains said in an interview.

“A lot them will not have an opportunity, so their democratic right will be taken away from them. That’s why we made that change, and also to give them the time to raid in July and August when most of them are working.”

CLAC experienced an unsuccessful raid in 2017 by three B.C. Building Trades affiliates at the Site C dam. The former Christy Clark government imposed an open-shop at Site C, over the objections of the traditional international unions, and the main civil works contract went to a consortium called Peace River Hydro Partners with CLAC as the union.

“A group that called themselves the TEL group, the Teamsters, the Operating Engineers and Labourers, attempted to raid us two years ago,” said Ryan Bruce, CLAC’s B.C. manager of government relations. “It was incredibly disruptive. The TEL group were there at the airport, and they followed some members home. They were on site, they were given camp access. Time and time again our members asked us, when is this going to be over.”

Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council, has argued that the strict “craft lines” of international unions for groups such as ironworkers, shipbuilders, plumbers, plasterers, insulators and drywall finishers, are for safety reasons. He dismisses CLAC as “not a union.”

CLAC and its contractors work under “wall-to-wall” contracts that Bruce says offer workers a chance to learn multiple construction site skills and develop long-term relationships with their employers.

B.C.’s transportation ministry has estimated that the international union restriction on projects such as the Pattullo Bridge and highway works will increase costs by seven per cent.

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